Ana Tijoux is often described as an MC, but that doesn’t quite do her justice. When she raps, her syllables cascade with such graceful intensity that it seems as if rapping in a language other than Spanish would be clumsy and archaic. But she also sings, with a gentle alto that acts as the perfect counterpoint to her rapping. And while she can contort her voice to mimic horns and percussion, she usually uses it to deliver poetic, politically conscious lyrics.
Touring in support of her new album “Vengo,” Tijoux was the complete package Thursday night at U Street Music Hall. Backed by the type of hip-hop band you don’t see unless you’re watching the Roots on “The Tonight Show,” Tijoux breezed through a catalogue-hopping set that sharpened the smooth edges of her recorded material into amped-up rap-rock-en-Español.
Tijoux’s music is steeped in her unique biography. She was born in France to Chilean parents who had self-exiled after the 1973 coup in their home country. Growing up in Paris, she played with the children of political refugees from around the world and discovered hip-hop, first as a dancer and then as a rapper. When her family returned to Chile in 1993, she immersed herself in the country’s hip-hop scene, spending a decade in various groups before going solo.
Her journey led to a sound that views golden age hip-hop through a prism of global music, with elements of jazz, reggae and folk from around the world. Tijoux’s skill is bringing it all together, from funk grooves and DJ scratches to pan flutes and mariachi trumpets.
In the same way that her music draws from a bygone rap era, her brand of conscious lyricism is one often eschewed in mainstream hip-hop. On “Sube,” over a beat that could belong to Public Enemy, she rapped about self-
empowerment, while the martial, drum-rolling “Shock” was a Chilean student protest anthem. Some of her most powerful songs speak to the plight of oppressed women around the world, from the forceful “Antipatriarca” to the somber “Sacar La Voz.” On the latter, she sang lyrics that translate to, “Walk tall and without fear / Breathe, and raise your voice.”
Yet despite the lofty subject matter of her lyrics, the music is never ponderous or boring. Her set closed with the horn-heavy “Somos Sur,” a rallying cry for global protest that worked the crowd into a frenzy better described as skanking than moshing. Tijoux was brought to town by local DJ collective Maracuyeah, whose pan-Latin dance parties strive to be safe spaces. The same everyone-is-welcome inclusiveness was present Thursday night, with a crowd ready to dance, jump, cheer, applaud, sing along and maybe change the world a bit.
Kelly is a freelance writer.